Blog Post Linda Coutant Jul 1, 2024

5 Park Landmarks with Curious July 4 Histories

What sings ‘America the Beautiful’ more loudly than the natural landscape of our country? Here are five distinctive national park features named for events that took place on this U.S. holiday. 

The Fourth of July commemorates the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress, which pronounced freedom from Britain in 1776. Since then, people typically spend this day in boisterous crowds, energized by the celebratory boom and brilliant dazzle of fireworks — and in appropriately named places such as Liberty, Missouri, or on Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C.

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Others might prefer to ponder the occasion in quieter settings that honor our nation’s birthday while also emphasizing its stunning beauty. English professor Katherine Lee Bates published the words to “America the Beautiful” as a poem on July 4, 1895, after being inspired by the continent’s splendor as she saw it from atop Colorado’s Pikes Peak, now part of the Pike-San Isabel National Forests.

National Park System sites similarly have inspired artists, explorers, musicians, authors and countless others.

The names of these five park spots reflect the stories of where people were, what they did and how they honored this U.S. holiday. Perhaps these natural phenomena will inspire you to visit, too — on July 4 or any time of the year.

1. Independence Rock in Wyoming

In 1830, a group of fur trappers camped and celebrated Independence Day near this rock, west of Alcova, Wyoming. Independence Rock became the most-noted landmark of the wagon trails west of Fort Laramie. Thousands of westward travelers stayed overnight near this outcropping, which is 1,900 feet long, 850 feet wide and 136 feet high. According to legend, pioneers aimed to reach the rock by July 4 to avoid the coming snows. They used it as a bulletin board of sorts, carving their names and messages into the granite. For this reason, it is also known as the Register of the Desert.

A national historic landmark since 1961, Independence Rock is a feature along the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, Oregon National Historic Trail, California National Historic Trail and the Pony Express National Historic Trail.

2. 4th of July Beach, San Juan Island National Historical Park

An American tax collector wanting to annoy the British flew a large flag on this beach on July 4, 1859 — the year the U.S. and Britain almost went to war over who would possess the island, a crisis ignited by the death of a pig. The countries eventually settled the land dispute through peaceful arbitration.

4th of July Beach offers pebbly sand and tranquil waters facing Griffin Bay. While swimming is discouraged due to strong currents, visitors often kayak or pick berries here in the summer. A path along the shoreline connects 4th of July Beach with Old Town Lagoon and the former site of the island’s first Euro-American village. The walk provides sights of Mount Baker and the San Juan archipelago.

3. Independence Monument, Colorado National Monument

Red rock cliffs, mesas and canyons form the 32-square-mile Colorado National Monument located along the Colorado River. Among its many striking rock formations is Independence Monument, which takes its name from a flag-raising tradition that began July 4, 1911 — the year President Taft established the park.

The monument’s first appointed caretaker, John Otto, climbed to the top of this 450-foot sandstone monolith and planted an American flag. A community event evolved. Local climbers, with expert guidance from a search and rescue team, still make the arduous ascent to raise a flag each year. In this video, a park ranger explains how the rock formation is all that remains of an ancestral wall that connected the canyon cliffs.

4. Fourth of July Pass, North Cascades National Park

At 3,600 feet, Fourth of July Pass — so named because a crew building a wagon road in 1861 camped here on July 4 — is a popular hike among day hikers and backpackers because snow melts earlier here than in other places of the park.

Moderately strenuous, Thunder Creek Trail goes up the pass’ west side for 5.2 miles and offers occasional views of the valley and surrounding mountains. The pass’ longer and steeper Panther Creek Trail winds through a forest and over creeks before reaching the summit after 6.5 miles. For backcountry campers, Fourth of July Camp offers views of Neve Glacier.

5. Independence Creek, Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

As Meriwether Lewis and William Clark sought a route to the Pacific Ocean, their team camped July 4, 1804, at a village of the Kanza people near the mouth of the Missouri River. The group named the spot Independence Creek, which is about five miles north of the current city of Atchison, Kansas.

Clark noted in his journal that the camp was uninhabited, but in truth the Kanza were simply away at their buffalo hunting grounds. Westward expansion beginning with the Lewis and Clark expedition proved disastrous to the Kanza people’s way of life. After being removed to Oklahoma in 1872, they became known as the Kaw Nation of Oklahoma, which has more than 3,800 members today.

Independence Creek Historic Site features interpretive signage and a replica of an earth lodge used by the Kanza people. The site can be accessed from the Glacial Hills Scenic Byway or by a 5-mile hiking/biking trail from Atchison’s riverfront.

If cities and crowds are your thing, the National Park Service and its partners sponsor the Independence Day fireworks show in Washington, D.C., which draws more than 700,000 people to the National Mall each year. (Curious how this huge event gets put together? Read the Park Service’s “behind the scenes” account.) Also in D.C., the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site presents an actor’s delivery of the abolitionist’s most famous speech — “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” — which he delivered on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York.

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Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore, where Francis Scott Key wrote what became the U.S. national anthem, welcomes visitors for a hoisting of the “Star-Spangled Banner” over the ramparts, while Independence National Historical Park participates in Philadelphia’s “Celebration of Freedom” ceremony and festival.

Editor’s note: The use of fireworks is strictly prohibited on all federal lands.

About the author

  • Linda Coutant Staff Writer

    As staff writer on the Communications team, Linda Coutant manages the Park Advocate blog and coordinates the monthly Park Notes e-newsletter distributed to NPCA’s members and supporters.